All farmers selling wool over the last number of years will be well aware of the continued fall in price that has seen the product become almost worthless. With prices this year ranging from 10c/kg to 50c/kg depending on the wool grade and time of year sold, sheep farmers continue to shear at a considerable loss. Of course, it wasn’t always a poor trade. Go back to the 1980s and the sale of wool was a very important part of the sheep farmer’s income.
In 1984 when the National Wool Council (An Comhairle Olla) was abolished as a cost saving exercise we exported 5,895 tonnes of wool at a value of over £14m. That is equivalent to €29.7m today. In contrast, 5,641 tonnes was exported in 2019 at a value of €6.8m. While getting back to where we were in the mid-1980s may seem overly optimistic, the coming years will see significant change that could benefit Irish sheep farmers through an improved wool price.
The global wool trade has suffered over the last number of decades due to the increased use of synthetic fibres, especially in the fashion industry where it accounts for 65% of all fibres used, with wool accounting for just 1%. Recent research has shown that these synthetic fibres, which are sourced from crude oil, are, when washed, contributing to micro-plastics in waterways, seas and oceans. This is now a major problem for marine life and is also a problem for humans as it finds its way back through the food-chain. (See second article on this page for details).
As a natural fibre that is biodegradable, wool can provide a safe alternative product and a solution to a crisis that our scientific community and governments are only starting to appreciate. The challenge for us is to increase public awareness of this problem, while at the same time emphasising the important role wool could play in providing the solution. In addition to this, I believe there is a need to examine the possibility of developing a woollen industry here in Ireland and it is an option the INHFA are currently exploring. With five million sheep on the island of Ireland we believe this can be a viable option that could be further enhanced by the importation of wool from other EU countries.
Currently over 95% of wool sourced in Ireland goes to Bradford in the north of England, which may not be an option post-Brexit depending on the outcome of the UK-EU trade talks. Either way, a woollen industry based in Ireland creating local employment and paying a better price to our farmers is a prize worth fighting for.
In developing an industry such as this the first requirement is a scouring plant to clean the wool. While the cost involved in building of such a plant is not the issue, the challenge comes afterwards through the grit and contaminants in the soiled water after the scouring and washing process.
Ensuring the proper filtration and treatment of this water is where the major costs will be. However, all of this is achievable and it can be done without any impact to the environment provided the financial backing is there to do it. An additional factor to be considered when managing the waste from the cleaning process is its possible use as slow-release nitrogen in the growing of rhubarb. By adopting this approach, we help develop the circular economy as promoted through the CAP Strategic Plan. Once in place and working we do need to look at what products we can develop from wool, and this in itself can create further employment. While we would expect a greater requirement for wool in the fashion industry on the back of increased awareness of the dangers of micro-plastics, there are other options that we need to explore.
These should include the use of wool as a thermal and acoustic insulation, replacing bubble wrap and other synthetic packaging. It could also be used as a floor covering and for furniture. Lanolin is also an option, which is widely used in the cosmetic industry. As the UK exits the EU there is now an opportunity to try and establish a woollen industry in Ireland. This will require support from both our Government and the EU. If successful, a revivedwool industry can deliver for our rural economy and, most importantly, for our farmersthrough a higher price.